MomZette

YouTube to America’s Kids: We’re Watching You

Another internet giant runs into trouble with a data-mining issue — this time our vulnerable children are targeted

Think again before you let your child hop onto the computer and watch that new Disney trailer on YouTube — the uber-popular video platform may be “data mining” your child.

Multiple advocacy groups are now claiming that YouTube, a Google subsidiary, illegally collects information about its young users in order to target them for advertising. These groups want YouTube to change its policies on kid-friendly content and pay a fine for allegedly making big bucks off young viewers.

Looks like another giant corporation — think Facebook — may have to pay the piper for abusing the trust of its users.

On Monday, 20 advocacy groups filed a complaint requesting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate YouTube for violating the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This act puts limits on the methods of companies’ collection of data on kids under 13. (Under the law, companies have to notify parents and get their consent before collecting data on children.) The complaint estimates that YouTube inappropriately collected data on 23 million children over “a period of years.” It asks the FTC to fine YouTube up to $41,484 per violation.

That would add up to billions in fines.

“Google has made substantial profits from the collection and use of personal data from children on YouTube. Its illegal collection has been going on for many years and involves tens of millions of U.S. children,” the complaint states, which was led by the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“I think it’s worrying to know that all this data are being collected on children younger than [age] 13, and I hope that now that there is heightened awareness of the extent to which data are being mined,” Dr. Shaheen Shariff, a professor of integrated studies in education at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, told LifeZette by email on Monday. “YouTube, Google, Facebook and others will be held to account, although we all know it will be challenging to regulate. Nonetheless, it was time that people became more vigilant of what they post online — especially when kids are involved.”

“The obvious concern,” she continued, “is who has access to this data and what they are doing with it. It is bad enough that these media corporations and advertisers are targeting kids commercially — but if it gets in the wrong hands, of child sexual predators, for example, then it can have serious consequences.”

YouTube’s terms of service state that users must be 13 and older — but anyone can watch YouTube without an account. And Trendera Research found that 45 percent of kids between the ages of eight and 12 indeed have a YouTube account, as CNN noted.

YouTube does have a mobile app for the young ones called YouTube Kids, which it rolled out in 2015. The company asserts the app does not collect data on these young users.

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“Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. We will read the complaint thoroughly and evaluate if there are things we can do to improve,” a Google spokesperson told CNN. “Because YouTube is not for children, we’ve invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children.”

What can moms and dads do today to protect their kids?

“This weekend my husband and I went through our iPhones and turned off all possible settings where data can be taken and uploaded,” Shaheen Shariff told LifeZette. “My advice to parents and grandparents would be to ensure their children are aware about the potential for this, and to think very carefully about what they share online.”

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She added, “For example, do parents need to share all the cute pictures of their kids or grandkids in the bathtub or running nude on a beach online? These platforms have also become the primary mode of communication for most kids, and parents can’t censor or monitor everything — and nor should they — because the kids will only continue to use them when parents aren’t watching.”

And, as always, consistent and thorough communication and watchful parenting are in order.

“The better way to ensure that children are aware of this is through regular, thoughtful discussions and dialogues, engaging them in critical consideration of what types of data might be taken up, and what all the potential consequences might be,” she noted. “This way, as they grow and continue to use these platforms, they can make informed and critical decisions. They will exercise their own discretion and agency.”

“As they grow and continue to use these platforms, they can make informed and critical decisions.”

Shariff encouraged a thoughtful process by kids and teens in regard to any and all content posted online.

“If they [the kids] are sexting or putting out risqué videos or pictures, which our research shows that teens are doing a lot now — it is like ‘flirty fun’ was for us in the ’60s — then they need to think about how they would feel if that content gets into the hands of people who might engage in extortion, or worse.”

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor at LifeZette.